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Literary Crime Fiction

ORANGES AND LEMONS . . . Between the covers

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For a good part of its long and curious history, it seems that The Peculiar Crimes Unit of London’s Metropolitan Police has been under threat. Civil servants and box-tickers without number have tried to close it down; it has endured bombs (courtesy of both the Luftwaffe and those closer to home); it has suffered plague and the eternal pestilence of whatever vile tobacco Arthur Bryant happens to stuffing into his pipe at any particular moment. The PCU has become:

“..like a flatulent elderly relative in a roomful of
millennials,a source of profound embarrassment..”

But now, yet another crisis seems to be the fatal straw that will break the back of the noble beast. Bryant’s partner John May (the sensible one) is on sick leave recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound. Mr B has gone AWOL (trying to have his memoirs published), and the office has been invaded by a tight lipped (and probably ashen-faced) emissary from the Home Office who has instructions to observe what he sees and then report back to Whitehall.

The PCU creaks into arthritic action when Arthur Bryant puts his literary ambitions on hold, and links three apparently random deaths. A Romanian bookseller’s shop is torched, and he dies in police custody; a popular and (unusually) principled politician is grievously wounded, apparently by a pallet of citrus fruit falling from a lorry; a well-connected campaigning celebrity is stabbed to death on the steps of a notable London church. For Bryant, the game is afoot, and he draws on his unrivaled knowledge of London’s arcane history to convince his colleagues that the killer’s business is far from finished. His colleagues? Regular B&M fans will be relieved to know that, in the words of the 1917 American song (melody by Sir Arthur Sullivan) “Hail, Hail – The Gang’s All Here!”

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An intern in the PCU? Yes, indeed, and in the words of Raymond Land;

“You may have noticed there’s an unfamiliar name attached to the recipients at the top of the page. Sidney Hargreaves is a girl. She’s happy to be called either Sid or Sidney because her name is, I quote, ‘non gender specific in an identity-based profession.’ It’s not for me to pass comment on gender, I got lost somewhere between Danny la Rue and RuPaul.”

There are more deaths and Arthur Bryant is convinced that the killings are linked to the London churches immortalised in the old nursery rhyme, with its cryptic references:

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But what links the victims to the killer? Beneath the joyous anarchy Arthur Bryant creates in the incomprehending digital world of modern policing, something very, very dark is going on. Fowler gives us hints, such as in this carefully selected verse between two sections of the book:

“The past is round us, those old spires
That glimmer o’er our head;
Not from the present are their fires,
Their light is from the dead.”

Also, underpinning the gags and joyfully sentimental cultural references there are moments of almost unbearable poignancy such as the moment when the two old men meet, as they always have done, on Waterloo Bridge, and think about loves won and lost and how things might have been.

There is no-one quite like Christopher Fowler among modern authors. He distills the deceptively probing gaze of John Betjeman, the sharp humour of George and Weedon Grossmith, the narrative drive of Arthur Conan Doyle and a knowledge of London’s darker corners and layers of history quite the equal of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd,  The result? A spirit that is as delicious as it is intoxicating. Oranges and Lemons is published by Doubleday and is out now.

More about the unique world of Arthur Bryant and John May can be found here, while anyone who would like to learn more about the origin of the rather sinister verse quoted earlier should click on the picture of its author, below, Letitia Elizabeth Landon.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES … Skin Deep by Peter Dickinson

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In June 1968 USA publishers Harper & Row released a book titled The Glass Sided Ants’ Nest. The novel, by Peter Malcolm de Brissac Dickinson, aka Peter Dickinson, was simultaneously published in Britain by Hodder & Stoughton as Skin Deep and won a CWA Gold Dagger in that year. Both titles are still available

dickinson_3529483kIncidentally, I don’t think there are many Old Etonian authors around these days, but Dickinson (left) was there from 1941 to 1946, and it is tempting to wonder if he ever rubbed shoulders in those years with another Eton scholar by the name of Robert William Arthur Cook, better known to us as the Godfather of English Noir Derek Raymond, who was there from 1944 until 1948.

Skin Deep introduces us to London copper, Superintendent Jimmy Pibble, who was to feature in several subsequent mysteries. Already, Dickinson sets out his stall. Writers more ready to twang the purse strings of the book buying public might name their hero something more suggestive of intrigue and danger, like Jack Powers, Max Stead, Dan Ruger, Will Stark or Tom Caine. But Jimmy Pibble? He sounds more like a walk-on player in a Carry On film. But this, we soon learn, is Dickinson’s little joke, perhaps at the expense of lesser writers or less demanding readers. Pibble is highly intelligent, sensitive, but no-one’s pushover and, despite several bitterly ironic turns of events, nothing in the story is played for laughs.

The stage set of Skin Deep is brilliantly bizarre. Even the modern maestro of wonderfully eccentric plots, the Right Honorable Member for King’s Cross, Mr Christopher Fowler, might have baulked at this one. In a sturdily-built but nondescript London suburb, Flagg Terrace, live the exiled sole survivors of an ancient New Guinean tribe, the Kus. They survived a massacre by Japanese invaders in 1943 and have relocated to London. These folk, some crippled by genetic ailments, have transformed their home into a strange replica of their home village. The men lead separate lives from the women, and they practice a religion which is a perplexing blend of missionary Christianity and their native beliefs. Flagg Terrace has not been gentrifird:

“The tide of money had washed around it. The hordes of conquering young executives, sweeping down like Visigoths from the east and driving the cowering and sullen aboriginals into the remoter slums of Acton, had left it alone. Neither taste nor wealth could assail its inherent dreadfulness.”

When Aaron, the leader of the Ku folk, is found dead, battered to death with a carved wooden owl, Pibble is given the task of discovering the killer. He is clearly regarded by his more conventional superiors as a good copper, but something of an oddball, and someone to be kept as away as possible from high profile cases.

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To say that the Kus are an odd lot is an understatement. Among the residents are Dr Eve Ku, a distinguished anthropologist. She is married to Paul Ku, but she can only be referred to as ‘he’ due to her countryfolk’s distinctive take on gender politics. Robin Ku is, on the one hand a rather clever teenager who has an alter-ego as a Ku drummer, beating the traditional slit drums as an accompaniment to sexually charged tribal rituals. Add into the mix Bob Caine, a neighbour of the Ku’s. He is what John Betjeman called “a thumping great crook”, but he is a sinister fraudster who was not only implicated in the Japanese destruction of the Ku people, but has serious connections to organised crime in the here-and-now.

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Skin Deep is a wonderful example of literary crime fiction in which the author doesn’t write down to his audience, but skillfully uses language to evoke mood, ambience and atmosphere. Dickinson’s ear for dialogue is attuned to the slightest inflection so that we instantly know how is talking, without the need for clumsy prompts. Jimmy Pibble is a delightful character with a gentle streak of misanthropy in his soul. His idea of a good pub is:

“…a back street nook kept by a silent old man who lived for the quality of his draught beer. It would be empty when Pibble used it, save for two genial dotards playing dominoes.”

Pibble’s view of the policeman’s lot is similarly sanguine:

“That was the whole trouble with police work. You come plunging in, a jagged Stone Age knife, to probe the delicate tissues of people’s relationships, and of course you destroy far more than you discover. And even what you discover will never be the same as it was before you came; the nubbly scars of your passage will remain.”

Don’t be misled into thinking that there is anything remotely Golden Age or cosy about this book. It is often darkly reflective, and Aaron’s killer is both unmasked and punished in one tragic moment of unfortunate misjudgment by Jimmy Pibble. There were to be five more novels featuring the distinctive detective:

A Pride of Heroes (1969); US: The Old English Peep-Show
The Seals
(1970); US: The Sinful Stones
Sleep and His Brother
(1971)
The Lizard in the Cup (1972)
One Foot in the Grave (1979)

Peter Dickinson was also a successful and widely admired author of children’s books. He died in 2015 at the age of 88. Click the link to read an obituary.

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THE GILDED ONES . . . Between the covers

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BrookeThis is a curious and quite unsettling book which does not fit comfortably into any crime fiction pigeon-hole. I don’t want to burden it with a flattering comparison with which other readers may disagree, but it did remind me of John Fowles’s intriguing and mystifying cult novel from the 1960s, The Magus. I am showing my age here and, OK, The Gilded Ones is about a quarter of the length of The Magus, it’s set in 1980s London rather than a Greek island and the needle on the Hanky Panky Meter barely flickers. However we do have a slightly ingenuous central character who serves a charismatic, powerful and magisterial master and there is a nagging sense that, as readers, we are having the wool pulled over our eyes. There is also an uneasy feeling of dislocated reality and powerful sensory squeezes, particularly of sound and smell. Author Brooke Fieldhouse (left) even gives us female twins who are not, sadly, as desirable as Lily and Rose de Seitas in the Fowles novel.

So, what goes on? A young designer who we only know as Pulse, takes a job with a north London firm headed run by Patrick Lloyd Lewis. We are introduced to Pulse via a disturbing dream where he is witness to a fatal car accident on a precipitous alpine road. Any first hand account of such a traumatic event is bound to be unnerving, but Pulse’s dream goes one step further.

“On her feet are shiny mink-hued ballet pumps, en pointe. I stare at the tips of the pumps and cover my mouth with both my hands. My spleen drops past zero, through the valley bottom and into the void. I look at her eyes, no longer scintillating as they did when she read the signpost. The figure is suspended invisibly and diabolically, one foot above the snow-covered ground.”

TGOLloyd Lewis is the Magus-like figure. He is so thumpingly male that you can almost smell him, and he rules those around him, with one exception, with an almost feral ferocity. So who are ‘those around him’? Ever present psychologically, but eternally absent physically, is his late wife Freia, the subject of Pulse’s dream. Martinique is Patrick’s girlfriend, and loitering in the background are his children, step-child and office gofer Lauren. Lauren, who has “thousand-year-old eyes”, is of the English nobility, but quite what she is doing in the Georgian townhouse we only learn at the end of the book. The one person to whom Patrick defers is his Sicilian friend Falco. Equalling the Englishman’s sense of menace, the sinister Falco appears briefly but is, nonetheless, memorable.

“There was something of the giant baby about his movements, and I wondered if he had been breastfed long after there had been a physical need for it.”

Pulse is transfixed with the idea that Freia was murdered by Patrick. But can he prove it? While ostensibly working with clients in a northern city, he discovers a link between the late Freia, the design practice, and a seedy but powerful club-owning gangster.

Patrick Lloyd Lewis is a morbidly fascinating character, and Fieldhouse does his damnedest to convince us that he is a wrong ‘un. I lost count of the number of times that Patrick’s mouth was compared to an anus, in various states of dilation. Too much information? Maybe so, but the graphic image certainly cemented in place the bas relief of an oleaginous and venal alpha male.

The Gilded Ones is an inventive and frequently entertaining enigma, written with panache and a love of language. The focus of the story is, however, occasionally soft to the point of becoming elusive, and the plot often darts off in unexpected and unresolved directions. Despite there being many questions left unanswered by the dreamlike narrative, this is as individual and different a novel as I have read all year. Fans of rum-te-tum police procedurals or blood-soaked serial killer sagas should look away now, but there is more – much more – to this novel than just another cri-fi potboiler. It is published by Matador and is available in Kindle and paperback.

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FRIENDS AND TRAITORS … Between the covers

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After a pause of some years, during which he has introduced the character of Joe Wilderness (Then We Take Berlin, The Unfortunate Englishman) John Lawton re-introduces his most beguiling character, Frederick Troy. Troy is the son of a Russian emigré-turned-newspaper-baron, but he has turned his back on that world (if not its riches and status) to become a London copper. Learning his trade as a bobby on the beat in WWII London, he rises to become one of the top policemen of his generation. His older brother, Sir Rodyon ‘Rod’ Troy has turned to politics, and in this novel he is Shadow Home Secretary in the 1950s Labour Opposition of Hugh Gaitskell.

FATFriends and Traitors focuses mostly on the 1951 defection – and its aftermath – of intelligence officer Guy Burgess, to the Soviet Union. A huge embarrassment to the British government at the time, it was also about personalities, Britain’s place in the New World Order – and its attitudes to homosexuality. Burgess’s usefulness to the Soviets was largely symbolic, but the crux of the story is the events surrounding Burgess’s regrets, and heartfelt wish to come home. Troy interviews him in a Vienna hotel.

“’I want to come home.’
‘Yes,’ said Troy softly. ‘I’d guessed as much.’
‘I miss it all. I miss London. I miss the clubs. I miss the Dog and Duck. I miss the Salisbury. I miss the reform. I miss the RAC. I miss the Gargoyle. I miss that bloke in the pub in Holborn who can fart the national anthem. I miss Tommy Trinder. I miss Max Miller. I miss Billy Cotton. I miss Mantovani. I miss my mother. Oh God, I miss my mother.’”

Troy becomes caught up with what is later revealed to be a plot within a plot – within a subterfuge – within a brutal exercise in double dealing. One thing is for certain, though – the British establishment has no intention of a ‘kiss and make up’ process with Burgess. Rod Troy is summoned to 10 Downing Street to meet Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who conceals his razor sharp political awareness by pottering about the kitchen in a tatty cardigan, making tea:

“But then, the old man could be amazingly elliptical, subtle to the point of obscurity, to the point where half the nation had willingly misunderstood his ‘never had it so good’ speech. However, there was nothing elliptical about ‘I don’t want Burgess back – at any price.’”

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One of the joys of the Fred Troy novels is the vast repertory company of characters, some fictional and others actual, who appear throughout the series. One such is the beguiling Hungarian musician Méret Voytek, who took centre stage in A Lily of the Field (click the link to read more). Voytek, now a Soviet agent, and Troy are temporarily reunited as part of the subterfuge surrounding Burgess’s attempts to return to Britain.

“He’d not set eyes on Voytek since the day he’d stuck her on the ferry to Calais ten years ago. At twenty-four she’d looked older than her years, her hair prematurely, brazenly white after a year in the hands of the Nazis. Now, she had more flesh on her bones, she had dyed her hair back to its youthful black, no longer wearing white as the badge of her suffering.”

AR-AM348_LAWTON_12S_20160302163714Lawton (right) was born in 1949, so would have only the vaguest memories of growing up in an austere and fragile post-war Britain, but he is a master of describing the contradictions and social stresses of the middle years of the century. Here, he describes Westcott, a notoriously persistent MI5 interrogator, sent to quiz Troy on the events in Vienna:

“His generation had not worn well. A childhood in the over-romanticised Edwardian Age, an adolescence spent wondering if the Great War would last long enough to kill him, and then thrust out into the twenties, into the General Strike and the Depression – the Age of Disappointment – and the thirties, what Auden had called ‘that dirty, double-dealing decade’ – one not designed to leave a man with any memories of heroism, cameradie, or death”

Fred Troy is something of an anti-hero. His attitude towards women would have him outed in the comments section of today’s Guardian, and his approach to moral certainties would, at best, be described as pragmatic. Over the course of the series, he beds many women, but Friends and Traitors has him attached (but not exclusively) to a wholesome lass from Derbyshire, called Shirley Foxx. They go to her home town, to rediscover and reclaim the house where she grew up. In the use of evocative product names, Lawton has found a sharp weapon, and he is not afraid to use it:

“He found her in the bedroom. Childhood spread out across a handknotted rag rug – one large doll, one small lacking its left arm, half a dozen Ladybird books, a dozen Collins classics, a shrivelled bouquet of posies in a faded red ribbon, a bar of soap in the shape of Minnie Mouse …”

While Shirley is trying to exorcise her childhood in order to make sense of her new life, Troy beds another woman but is then called to investigate her murder. Having sorted out her parents’ house, Shirley makes a surprise return to Troy’s London flat in St Martin’s Lane:

“’But it’s done now. The loo works, hot and cold running in a new sink, the house is let and Rosie and Malcolm installed. I am …..home!’ Of course she was. He didn’t think he’d noticed his home in days. He had fallen through a hole in time and space. He had lived with the dead, and could not handle the living woman in front of him.”

To put it simply, Lawton is a writer who transcends genre. His prose is subtle, stylish, pared back to the bone, but translucent, crystal clear. His portrayal of Britain and its place either side of WWII is masterly: he reflects the country’s disappointments, its uncertainties and how it seems to be stumbling, torchless, through a world of darkness quite beyond its comprehension. The Fred Troy novels lack the sequential timeline of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, but in every other sense they are its equal.

Friends and Traitors is available here,
and you can check reading options for the other Fred Troy novels.

THE SECRETS ON CHICORY LANE …Between the covers

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Shelby Truman is a highly successful romantic novelist tapping out stories involving her heroine Patricia Harlow. After forty two novels, the public shows no sign of losing its appetite for the sultry Patricia and her ability to choose precisely the wrong kind of man for her peace of mind and blood pressure. It’s a grey Chicago morning, and Truman is taking a deep breath and trying type something – anything – which will trigger the latest episode of inflamed passions and yearning bodies, when she receives a piece of registered mail which her assistant, Billy, has just signed for. She is used to convincing her readers that Patricia’s heart has ‘missed a beat’, but now fiction becomes reality.

“The return address at the top of the envelope indicates that the sender is Robert Crane Esq. of Limite, Texas. I know the name. Eddie’s attorney. A twinge of anxiety starts deep in my chest. I’d been trying not to think about Eddie, but that’s impossible this week.

The thing is, I’ve always thought about Eddie. We go way, way back, to when we were children living in Limite.”

Chicory LaneEddie is Eddie Newcott, the boy who used to live across the street in Chicory Lane, Limite. The boy who was just a bit different from all the other kids at school. The kid whose dad was a rough and abusive oilfield mechanic. The kid whose mom turned to the bottle to escape her violent husband and the beatings he handed out to their only child. But that was then. Now sees Eddie fallen on hard times. Times so hard that he achieved brief notoriety in the tabloid press, and has now been sentenced to death by lethal injection for murdering his pregnant girlfriend, slashing her open, dragging the foetus out and then arranging the two corpses on his front lawn, posed in an obscene mockery of a Nativity tableau. And it was Christmas Eve.

“EVIL EDDIE…” …”SATANIST IN GRUESOME RITUAL..” … ‘SUSPECT CLAIMS TO BE THE DEVIL …”

With these headlines dancing before her eyes, Truman reads that all efforts to appeal for clemency on the grounds of insanity have failed, and that Eddie Newcott will die in four days time. As one of his last requests, the condemned man has asked for a visit from Shelby Truman.

What follows is a wonderfully written and heartbreaking account of the bond between Eddie and Shelby. It is as good a coming-of-age novel as I have read for many a year, but Benson’s skill as a storyteller doesn’t stop there. He delivers the poignancy and unbearable sensitivity of first love and sexual awakening. His account of how children escape from the shackles slapped on by their parents is masterly. Sometimes these shackles are forged from too much love, while with other children, the shackles are tempered in the fires of cruelty and hatred. There is also a very clever murder mystery, which isn’t resolved until the last few pages, and then the resolution brings only heartbreak.

I am never entirely sure what a ‘literary novel’ is, but if it consists of elegant writing, a fine ear for dialogue and a gimlet eye for the painful inconsistencies of human behaviour, then The Secrets On Chicory Lane ticks that box too.

RaymondBensonLike Shelby Truman, Raymond Benson (right) is a highly successful writer. He has written thrillers under his own name, most notably his Black Stiletto Saga, and has also written novels based on video games. He has taken up the baton from authors who are no longer with us, like Tom Clancy, and has written several James Bond stories which have either been based on established screenplays – like Die Another Day – or standalone original stories such as The Man With The Red Tattoo.

The Secrets On Chicory Lane is published by Skyhorse Publishing, and is available for pre-order.

BLUE LIGHT YOKOHAMA … Between the Covers

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The lights of the city are so pretty
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
I’m happy with you
Please let me hear
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
Those words of love from you
I walk and walk, swaying
Like a small boat in your arms
I hear your footsteps coming
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
Give me one more tender kiss

This 1960s Japanese pop song, banal though it is, provides a chilling soundtrack to this fascinating novel by Nicolás Obregón. The lyrics pepper the narrative, and the very triteness of the song with its synthetic and saccharin sentiments, is in stark contrast to the grim and bloodstained efforts of a discredited and damaged Tokyo detective to bring a brutal killer to justice.

blyInspector Kosuke Iwata’s personal life is as scarred and trauma-ridden as the human tragedies he faces daily as a member of the Homicide division of the Tokyo Municipal Police Department. He was abandoned by his mother in a bus station when he was a child, but has become partly Americanised since she reappeared, now married to a prosperous US citizen, to reclaim him. In the intervening years, Iwata grew up in a Catholic orphanage, and his sleep is frequently disturbed by fretful dreams of those days, with the voices of both his disturbed best friend, as well as the abusive head of the institution, forever whispering in his ear.

Even in adulthood, Iwata has attracted tragedy like a flame attracts winged creatures of the night. His marriage to an American girl ended in horror, when she threw herself off a cliff, clutching their little child. The child perished on the rocks, but the woman survived, after a fashion. She now sits mute in a care home, her body reconstructed, but her mind and soul long since scattered, just as her daughter’s bones were on the jagged rocks at the foot of the cliff.

Iwata has been assigned a murder case which has, albeit briefly, shocked Tokyo. The Kaneshiro family, parents and children have been butchered in their home. The fact that they were of Korean origin, and the much more newsworthy death of Mina Hong, a glamorous celebrity, has consigned the story to the inside pages of the newspapers. Iwata and his assistant, the beautiful but aloof Sakai, discover that the reason they have been given the Kaneshiro case is that the previous investigating officer, Hideo Akashi, inexplicably threw himself to death from a towering Tokyo bridge just weeks earlier.

Iwata is disgusted when the police department announces to the press that it has hunted down the Kaneshiro’s killer – a confused and obsessive young man known to have stalked Mrs Kaneshiro. The fires of Iwata’s suspicions are further stoked when he hears that the so-called killer has died in custody before he could be brought to trial. Now, Iwata is told that he is off the case. Problem solved. Move on, nothing to see here. As fictional detectives usually do, Iwata goes it alone and, after traveling to Hong Kong, he senses that the real killer – who adorns his victims with a mysterious image of a black sun – is within his reach.

He is wrong. Obregón leads Iwata – and us – on an elaborately constructed and beautifully executed wild goose chase. I can’t remember a book where all the apparently random and disconnected threads of the story are finally woven together so cleverly, and with such aplomb. And all the while, the studio kitsch of the song jingles, jangles and jars on our senses as one death leads to another, and deception heaps on deception.

I hear your footsteps coming
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
Give me one more tender kiss
I walk and walk, swaying
Like a small boat in your arms
The scent of your favorite cigarettes
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
This will always be our world 

obregonThis a superb novel and goes way beyond the restraints and conventions of crime fiction. In his afterword, Obregón says of Iwata:

He wouldn’t be wisecracking and he wouldn’t be tough. He would be alone and full of sorrow, fighting the battles of the dead.

Of the novel itself, he adds:

I realised then that Blue Light Yokohama would be a crime novel only in façade. At its heart, I wanted to write about people in pain. About people who had lost something. So it was that Inspector Kosuke Iwata was born.

Blue Light Yokohama is out now, and is published by Michael Joseph. Click the image below to hear the original song.

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